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Looking for the Afghan Exit

10:27 AM, Jul 28, 2009 • By BILL ROGGIO
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Less than a month after the U.S., Britain, and a smattering of Coalition and Afghan forces launched a limited operation to secure central and southern Helmand province, some are looking for the "exit."

A concerted effort to start unprecedented talks between Taliban and British and American envoys was outlined yesterday in a significant change in tactics designed to bring about a breakthrough in the attritional, eight-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Senior ministers and commanders on the ground believe they have created the right conditions to open up a dialogue with "second-tier" local leaders now the Taliban have been forced back in a swath of Helmand province.

They are hoping that Britain's continuing military presence in Helmand, strengthened by the arrival of thousands of US troops, will encourage Taliban commanders to end the insurgency. There is even talk in London and Washington of a military "exit strategy".

This is no way to describe this mindset other than wishful thinking. While the U.S. Marines and the Brits have made good progress in Helmand, the region they have entered and are in the process of securing is but a small part of the conflict area. And the Taliban have by no means been defeated, they've merely gone to ground or shifted into neighboring areas where Coalition and Afghan security forces are absent.

Much of northern Helmand is a Taliban haven. The Taliban control plenty of territory to the west in Farah and Nimroz provinces, to the east in Kandahar, and to the north in Uruzgan province. The Taliban also have a presence in Ghor and Herat provinces. And provinces in southeastern and eastern Afghanistan are either contested or under effective Taliban control. This doesn't even factor in the Taliban havens in Pakistan's Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province, and the tribal areas.

There's another factor to consider: who exactly will take over security once the U.S., British, and Coalition forces pull back? The Afghan police are far from ready. And the Afghan Army is sparse in the south. The Army could only devote a little more than 600 troops to the current offensive, despite the numerous requests from the Marines running the show in southern Helmand. The Marines have contributed more than 4,000 troops to the operation.

The Taliban have a saying about the U.S.: we have all the clocks, they have all the time. Prematurely implementing a half-baked "exit strategy" will prove the Taliban right.